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Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Dramaturgy and Two-Ness

As I was watching some Thorold Dickinson films during his recent retrospective at the Walter Reade, I started thinking about dramaturgy, and how it relates to my tastes. Dickinson is a gifted, proficient filmmaker who nonetheless doesn’t appeal to me very much. He resembles Hitchcock more than he does anyone else: he has an acute sense of event, of the viewer’s involvement in the drama; and of the way that the camera can exploit the wholeness of space to heighten involvement. All the films of his that I’ve seen build slowly and carefully to well-managed dramatic peaks: the bedroom confrontation between Anton Walbrook and Edith Evans in The Queen of Spades, the terrorist act in which Valentina Cortese is implicated in Secret People, the Rear Window-like confrontation between Walbrook and Frank Pettingell in Gaslight. The last is Dickinson’s most dazzling film (though for me rather painful to watch), partly for the way it manipulates audience sympathy to sustain agonizing suspense for almost its entire length. (Gaslight was oddball material for Cukor, but characteristic and defining material for Dickinson.)

What bothers me about Dickinson is that he doesn’t seem to have much interest in creating a film universe with interesting and coherent internal connections. All his energy seems to be devoted to the problem of positioning the viewer vis a vis the story. His characters tend to be reduced to a simple configuration of behaviors that reinforce their role in the drama: compare Walbrook’s signifier-level villainy in Gaslight and The Queen of Spades, exemplified by his luxurious drawling delivery of treacherous endearments, with the same actor’s evocations of intelligence and introspection for Powell/Pressburger or Ophuls. Dickinson is quite capable of using realistic elements for counterpoint (as in the superb sequence in Gaslight where the boarding and renovation of a house conveys the passing of years) or providing social context (like the street sweeper in Gaslight who guards the safety of the working-class urchins as a horse passes). But these skills remain in the periphery: when it comes to telling a story, Dickinson’s thoughts are fixed on our reactions. There’s not much in the way of character arc or development in his films, and what there is (the protagonists of Secret People, my favorite Dickinson film, go through a few changes) is greatly simplified in the name of narrative clarity.

I have a tendency to criticize filmmakers for failing to do the dramaturgical work of harmonizing character developments with story developments. Recently I expressed my misgivings about the talented Kiyoshi Kurosawa in similar terms: I am always dissatisfied by how his plots do not express and amplify the emotional dilemmas that plague his troubled characters. (I wrote a tiny bit more about this issue once on a_film_by.)

I am implicitly using a classic dramaturgical model to beat up these filmmakers. Even the most elementary narratives generally strive to create a wedding between the issues of the characters and the workings of the plot. For instance, a character who is a coward traditionally inspires a story in which he or she must perform bravely to resolve a crisis. Complicated art can complicate this procedure a great deal, but the tendency to bring together action and character development is ancient and persistent.

Obviously there are issues of taste involved here, so I don’t want to posit classical dramaturgy as any kind of aesthetic absolute. And it’s not as if I think that the cinema peaked with silent melodrama: good narrative films show infinite variety and subtlety in their weaving of personal stories and event. Perhaps it would be fair to say the movies that I criticized above are ones that foreground dramatic construction, while seeming to me not to care enough about its implications for character development.

The reason I bring the subject up is that, while watching Dickinson films, it occurred to me that classical dramaturgy could be seen as a way of creating a relationship between internal and external views of a work of art.

By “internal view,” I mean the idea that the work of art is its own universe independent of us, with its own coherence. When we criticize a work of art for psychological plausibility, for instance, or for having plot holes, we are thinking of the film universe as a self-sufficient world that has its own motors and laws, and expressing a desire that the filmmaker not play fast and loose with its integrity.

And by “external view,” I mean the idea that a work of art is a spectacle for the audience, intended to entertain or trouble or stimulate us. In this view, we are thinking less of a film universe, apart from us, than of a film mechanism that exerts an effect on us. The relationship between entities in this view is not character to character, but filmmaker to us.

Every work of art can probably be regarded from both these viewpoints. I routinely look at every movie through both prisms. In fact, I tend to require that both perspectives give satisfaction for me to consider a movie good.

There’s a big question, for me at least, raised by this consideration of the internal and external views of art. Why should I care that these two realms be brought into relation with each other? Why does this create aesthetic value for me? Why would I not be satisfied with getting one good thing, and instead require two?

Maybe the answer is simple. Sometimes I think that there is something crucially important about two-ness in art. In fact, sometimes I think that what creates artistic value for me is the presence of two separate kinds of pleasure, given at the same time by the same gesture. The pleasures might be extraordinarily simple ones: I don’t see a lower limit to how simple they can be. Nor do I see restrictions on what kind of pleasures can be involved. But if these pleasures come one at a time instead of two at once, I notice that I resist calling them art.

According to this theory, classical dramaturgy is valuable (to me - I have to remember to keep sticking that qualifier in, because it's obviously not true for everyone), not because of some sophisticated philosophical relationship between the internal and external views, but simply because both the internal and the external views give some elementary pleasure when they cohere, and because classical dramaturgy creates both coherences at the same time with the same act.

A few days later, I saw a movie that got me thinking about one-ness and two-ness in the context of visual style instead of dramaturgy. Introducing his intriguing La France at a New Directors/New Films screening, Serge Bozon cited the influence of directors from the American classical cinema, naming Walsh, Fuller, and Jacques Tourneur. I wasn’t so sure about Walsh and Fuller, but some of Bozon’s shots did indeed evoke Tourneur in their compositional quietude, and in an artificial illumination of space that seems both friendly and eerie.

And yet the effect was not at all the same for me. The postmodern approach of Bozon and his co-writer Axelle Ropert removes the propulsion of the story: events in La France are characteristically cut off from each other, suspended in a state of direct address. The visual containment and illuminated backgrounds of Tourneur exist in the context of narrative conviction: an image that is saturated with otherworldly serenity might also serve the function of introducing a zombie. By stripping away narrative momentum, Bozon’s beautiful images seemed to me to be deprived of the double function of Tourneur’s shots.

I don’t rule out the possibility that Bozon offers other complexities in place of Tourneur’s story-based approach, and I don’t want to propose La France as an example of failed art. But it does illustrate that Tourneur’s visual impact for me is based on a two-ness that I detect in his visual style, and when one of the two functions goes AWOL (as it did for me, at least), the artistic impact drops by much more than 50%.



Blogger girish said...

Dan, you may remember that when we got together for a drink a couple of weeks ago in Brooklyn, I mentioned to you a cinematic predilection I've been conscious of having all my film-viewing life. Which is that I particularly enjoy passages in films that imaginatively use audiovisual means while simultaneously de-emphasizing dialogue or eliminating it altogether. Now, this is not to say that I don't value dialogue, just that I find myself sitting bolt upright sometimes when dialogue falls away and narration continues to proceed through creative use of picture and non-verbal sound alone.

When I told you this, without skipping a beat you asked an excellent question: could I think of examples of films that I loved that did the opposite? i.e. leaned heavily on dialogue. Rohmer and Linklater are two directors I love who would fit the bill here. Perhaps it's because these filmmakers, while using dialogue and character to propel their films forward, simultaneously seem extremely aware of mise-en-scene while they are doing so.

So, I'm wondering: are there films or filmmakers you value highly who violate (or reject) classical dramaturgy, or who use images or sounds relatively disconnected from story and character to propel their films forward...?

April 12, 2008 3:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Two-ness" is a basic organizing principle behind art! But it's the tip of the iceberg, I think. The "internal"/"external" pairing is a broad view, while early in the post you express a "Salittian" approach to movies: story structure and character development as a dynamic pairing. Anytime I get excited about a movie I can usually step back and look for structuring that makes it tick, and oftentimes it starts with two-ness and mutates from there. Kiyoshi Kurosawa's PULSE actually illustrates this happening in-diegesis (the visual program of "killing" dots follows a strict set of guidelines at one point in the movie, but at another point the characters look at the monitor and the same program is following another game plan entirely).

I think a lot of this has to do with whether art can be broken down into quanta, or consists of irreducible waves. The first idea suggests we can "box up" parts of a film and examine what's in each box and how each box interacts with every other. A lot of people who call themselves movie critics tend to go this route, and a lot of filmmakers put out material that meets expectations. But I don't like this at all! I like the idea that a work of art can be overcome with a virulent strain of structural insanity.


April 12, 2008 7:56 PM  
Anonymous Todd Holmes said...

I think the idea of internal/external is spot on and is present in most "narratively successful" works, even when it's not as obvious. I've always thought of this concept in terms of backstory--that is, the idea that a fully flushed out world existing outside of the realm of the narrative on screen.

Often when I've viewed films I consider unsuccessful from a narrative standpoint, I can sense a lack of backstory, that the writer and/or director has not taken the time to develop (or has deliberately decided to forego) the larger world that the characters inhabit, and therefore the logic that drives their actions or behavior is less present or perhaps less thought out.

As for considering the presence of only the internal or external, by this logic the external must always be present. It is effectively the dialogue, the screen actions, the art direction... all of the elements that make up what we see. The internal (aka backstory) is what we don't see, the ideas that drive the external. It only makes sense from this standpoint that the presence of the internal makes a richer, more complex world, and therefore a richer, more complex film.

April 13, 2008 12:51 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

I thought this post would be too tedious to get any comments, and instead it drew a bunch of juicy ones.

Girish – your dialogue examples are interesting, because in both Rohmer and (sometimes) Linklater, dialogue could be described as perpendicular to the narrative, not a motor for it.

Your two questions seem different to me, so let me think about them one at a time. Violating classical dramaturgy is actually an exciting proposition to me – and, of course, to violate a rule is to affirm its power. The first examples that occur to me are Hitchcock’s The Birds and Losey’s The Damned - both films set up a traditional narrative, then willfully derail it to suggest that the very art form is threatened.

Still on question #1: rejecting classical dramaturgy can work for me too, if the filmmaker rejects because he or she is interested in something else. Actually, I think it’s fairly common for me to like films that don’t cohere strongly around a dramaturgical idea. I was just reading Scott Tobias on Primer, so that’s the example that comes to mind; among many possibilities. Primer is deeply invested in characterization, and gives the impression moment by moment that it is showing us aspects of people that the cinema has never before captured. The narrative has some classical-dramaturgy potential, but I don’t think Shane Carruth cares a lot about that angle, and the story becomes no more than a texture, a white noise into which the film dissolves. I don’t feel much of an invitation from the film even to evaluate whether the story has taken up and amplified its character concerns. I can’t say I’m entirely satisfied with how Primer deploys its story, but I don’t feel that the film’s value is pinned to that angle.

I think I start to have problems when a film foregrounds narrative and drama, but doesn’t resolve them with any form of two-ness that I can detect. Both Dickinson and Kiyoshi Kurosawa care a lot about suspense and about the impact of narrative developments.

Question #2 is about films that advance via images or sounds without relying on story or character. To my mind, we’re out of the realm of dramaturgy here, if story is gone. It seems to me you’re basically asking whether I value non-narrative filmmaking highly.

That’s a big issue in my filmgoing life. I do like some non-narrative films, and could rattle off a few if I wanted to establish my good faith. But I certainly don’t have anything like the passion for non-narrative cinema that I do for narrative cinema. To me, narrative is an amazing kind of sleight-of-hand, an approach that produces two-ness all over the place: it’s a standing invitation to filmmakers to work on multiple levels, a toolkit for keeping multiple balls in the air. I occasionally feel that non-narrative film finds ways of creating the two-ness that excites me in art – but if non-narrative cinema has a built-in two-ness generator, I haven’t understood it.

I’ve written on a_film_by about this issue: here’s a post that raises a related question. The post is part of a long thread that contains some interesting observations from other a_film_by members.

Have to run now, but I’ll try to address Jaime and Todd’s comments soon.

April 14, 2008 6:04 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully, Dan.

April 14, 2008 9:05 PM  
Anonymous chris_wells said...

Dan, this type of post is why I value your site (and Girish's and Zach Campbell's and Michael Sicinski's) so much -- a discussion of abstract, theoretical cinematic ideas that manages to be thoughtful and provocative while remaining humble and unpretentious. Two-ness indeed!

In the spirit of Girish's democratic blog, I'm eager to hear more examples of this idea, both from you and others. For me, STILL LIFE provides my favorite recent instance of this kind of dramaturgy: Jia's subtle, even slight visual gags never serve a purely comic function, instead doubling as pointed social critique, character detail, or even basic plot point. (I'll gladly confess that I'm far more susceptible to such moments when they're funny, as in Lubitsch.)

April 15, 2008 4:49 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Jaime – even that virulent strain of insanity has to be codified, described, put in boxes, no? One would need to distinguish between good and bad insanity somehow. (Assuming one wants to talk about art as good or bad, which is a great burden. But it’s like Pascal’s wager for me: the valuation of art seems preposterous and almost impossible, but value is the reason I care about movies, and so I have to try to describe value, on the one-in-a-million chance that I can make something stick.)

I definitely see the danger here of creating theories that merely reinforce our tastes, and I hope we can give our sensibilities enough play when we watch movies that our reactions will lead the way, and not our preconceptions.

The idea of two-ness isn’t self-evident to me. One-ness can be quite satisfying in real life. I’m playing with the idea that two-ness might be intrinsic to my idea of what a distinctly aesthetic reaction might be. But it’s still a hypothesis that I’m testing. I certainly would not feel confident using it as a club against Kurosawa, Dickinson, or anyone else.

Todd – interestingly, when you poke around among the writings of reviewers, or of movie civilians in general, you tend to find more thought devoted to the internal workings of movies. Sometimes I am surprised at the way that a filmmaker can have a really distinctive relationship with the audience and still have it go largely unnoticed, because most people are inclined to attribute actions to characters in a film instead of to the filmmaker. One of the ideas of auteurism that I embrace is that the filmmaker-audience relationship is much like a personal relationship, or at any rate analogous to one: it can be tender, abusive, questioning, didactic, authoritative, diffident.

And then, in academia, or at least in the lit-crit world, commentators tend to focus much more on the “external” angle, on the filmmaker-audience relationship. (I haven’t been in close contact with that world for a while, but I don’t think that particular tendency has changed.) So these two views of cinema are largely separated from each other.

To me, the most exciting way of thinking about cinema is to combine both these views – or, rather, to think of movies as doing both simultaneously, and to talk about the ways that internal and external goals can be attained simultaneously.

Out of time again – back to you later, Chris.

April 15, 2008 5:46 PM  
Blogger Michael Kerpan said...

Dan --

Have you seen Song Il-gon's "Spider Forest"? This is a film, well-made in a number of respects, that seems to me to try to emulate Kiyoshi Kurosawa's work, but fails miserably. Ironically, "Spider Forest" made me much more appreciative of what Kurosawa manages to accomplish -- even though I largely remain unable to actually _describe_ what I think he is doing.

April 15, 2008 7:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two-ness, wherever and whenever it comes into play, creates dynamism. It creates electricity. Whenever there's Thing1 and Thing2 interact, really weird stuff starts happening. 1 and 2 are fundamental, but any schoolteacher knows that there can be a violent reaction when two otherwise ordinary kids interact with one another, either as pairs or as adversaries.

This is micro stuff. As near as I can figure, the macro that Dan is getting at has to do with the push-me/pull-you of a movie (which we can elaborate on, the value of that, given a specific movie) is movie-upon-viewer / movie-upon-itself. This pair. One pulls you in, the other pulls you out: consider TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, which is an engrossing tale of intrigue and romance, played out perfectly, but also seems to be watching itself, laughing, jabbing you in the ribs, etc. You are pulled out, you are pulled in. At the same time. Such violence!

"even that virulent strain of insanity has to be codified, described, put in boxes, no?"

I don't think so.

But say a movie is heading one way, and then it heads another. A good movie, the viewer feels the momentum of an object being compelled along two vectors. There is a feeling of being torn in two and, simultaneously, of being fused onto something else anew. Two-ness!


April 15, 2008 8:28 PM  
Anonymous sky said...

Re: the question of whether or not insanity is twoness, that reminds me of a talk I had last night with my roommate, an avant-garde video artist. I was trying to get across that I felt pretty alienated from his latest project, which was fairly abrasive and primal, the filmmaking equivalent of noise-rock. He knows my aesthetic preferences pretty well, so he was trying to defend it on my terms, saying that you could still watch it and either feel calm, or feel energized, and that it was a choice. Thus, "two-ness," on his terms.

In expressing why I wasn't feeling the two-ness, here's what I said in my defense: once two-ness has been expressed, it becomes a concept. In other words, it loses its two-ness instantly. And it immediately needs to be opposed by another concept in order to generate artistic energy.

April 15, 2008 10:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"And it immediately needs to be opposed by another concept in order to generate artistic energy."

I'm okay with this except I think "opposed" is one of many options. The energy can come from "two" working in concert with one another.


April 16, 2008 5:53 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Good discussion, everyone. Usually my blog gets this kind of action only when I write about Michael Clayton or There Will Be Blood.

Chris – thanks for mentioning me in such good company. Jia is certainly an interesting filmmaker to think of in this context, because he seems to depend heavily on personal and social narratives happening simultaneously – if one or the other were removed, he could barely pretend to be making a movie at all.

If “two-ness” serves the important function that I’m thinking it does, then examples will be all over the place, on small and large scales. The danger of the concept is really that it might be so broad that you can find “two-ness” everywhere you look. Right now I’d like to proceed carefully, test the boundaries of the idea.

Hey, it recently dawned on me: are you C. Mason Wells?

Michael – I haven’t seen Spider Forest. The only Song film I’ve caught is The Magicians, which gave me no clue that the guy might ever have tread on the talented Mr. Kurosawa’s turf.

Jaime – I perhaps complicated the original discussion too much by adding a few paragraphs that attempted to generalize the “two-ness” concept. Most of that post was an attempt to understand classical dramaturgy in terms of “two-ness.” But then I couldn’t resist reaching for a unified field theory.

The appeal of “two-ness” is that it offers the possibility of simplification. For instance, maybe the internal and external views don’t need to have a really complicated interaction based on their properties: maybe it’s enough for them simply to be resolved at the same time with the same coup.

But there remains the question of why “one-ness” wouldn’t be enough to create an artistic effect. For me, this relates to an idea that I mentioned in that a_film_by post cited above, which is exactly the same idea that Sky just threw out: that an artwork has to overcome the mind’s natural tendency to form concepts, and hence to sacrifice the rawness of experience. I’ve never been completely sure that anyone else besides me has this problem, but that hasn’t stopped me from speculating that it might be an aspect of the human condition….

I first ventured into this territory when I tried to understand how narrative might work: I speculated that an element of the artwork – an image, say, or really any effect – might have some of its raw experiential qualities restored to it when my conceptual mind was distracted by the task of understanding a narrative; whereas the same effect might leave me cold when presented stand-alone, because my undistracted conceptual mind would throw myself upon the effect and abstract it. If you look at the section on La France in my original post, you can see that I was basically regurgitating this old idea.

Anyway, that’s the background for my assumption that “one-ness” might be a problem in an artistic context.

I like your connecting Hawksian style to “two-ness.” At the same time, Hawks advances the fictional structure, and exposes the fiction as a pleasant game played on a movie set.

Sky – your framework makes complete sense to me, but I’m focusing on the area that might cause problems for us: “once two-ness is expressed.” I’m guessing that the expression of a concept is a fuzzy area, not just from one viewer to another, but even in the mind of an individual.

Here’s an example on my mind: I just saw a really good film, Tomu Uchida’s 1955 A Hole of My Own Making, in BAM’s long-awaited Uchida retrospective. (I still don't have the measure of Uchida, and so am reluctant to recommend his films in advance; but I’m not planning to miss any of these screenings.) Hole is a complicated yet indirect study of five interacting characters, none of whom are ever explained to us via artistic shorthand, so that we are surprised again and again by character revelations that aren’t in any way extraordinary, but simply haven’t been mapped out for us. (The material is quite novelistic, and I presume much of the credit for the character scheme should go to Tatsuzo Ishikawa, whose novel was adapted.) On another level, the film presents a Japan altered by the war, virtually an American colony. The opening and closing of the film are punctuated by the sound of American fighter jets roaring overhead; and the characters have several discussions of the country’s postwar plight.

The viewer has a bit of choice in how much he or she regards the film as a personal story and how much as a depiction of a damaged nation. I tended toward the former position, as the characters’ plight seemed to me not too dependent on postwar circumstances.

One of the things I liked in the film was that the family’s apartment was located across the street from a large building under construction. Almost every scene in the apartment was set against a dim background of construction noise, and often we could see the construction site through windows. This scheme gave the scenes an interesting feeling: partly everyday urban atmosphere, partly an unsettled quality. And it paid off nicely in one of the climactic scenes, where a character who has been driven out of the apartment steps out, not to the accompaniment of emotional music, but onto that same noisy street.

I like this effect because it was almost nothing, a texture, an insistence on ambient realism even at times when the film was hitting dramatic peaks.

After the film was over, it occurred to me that the construction could also be seen as an emblem of Japan in the throes of postwar change. No doubt the filmmakers conceived it at least partly in those terms.

I’m okay with the double meaning, because the social message didn’t obtrude too much on my experience of the film. But, with a slight shift in my consciousness, I could imagine the construction taking on a greater social symbolism, joining forces with other signifiers of social meaning in the film, and therefore seeming more like a concept and less like a texture that could hit me obliquely. In fact, I even wonder whether the construction will register more symbolically for me on a second viewing. (Not that I’m likely to get one with a film this rare).

I guess I’m saying that there may be a gray area where the mind has the option of going toward either concept or raw experience, toward one-ness or two-ness.

April 16, 2008 3:08 PM  
Anonymous chris_wells said...

I've been outed! Yes, I am "C. Mason Wells," my (admittedly absurd-sounding) professional name, taken both in honor of my mother and to avoid confusion.

April 16, 2008 3:39 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Cool. We once interacted a bit at one of the Q&As for LOL at the IFC Center.

You're aware, of course, that even if you become the preeminent filmmaker of your generation, and then get elected president, people are still going to be more impressed that Greta Gerwig was your girlfriend....

April 16, 2008 3:46 PM  
Anonymous chris_wells said...

Ain't that the truth! I'm fully prepared to be a footnote in the Greta Gerwig biography... I'm just happy I was able to help share her copious gifts with the film world.

I had no idea we'd met before! If you see me at a rep screening (I usually attend about 8 to 10 a week, and it seems like we see many of the same films), please come up and say hi.

April 17, 2008 11:27 AM  
Blogger Evan said...

I've only seen a few of the films you reference here, but I agree that this notion of external/internal involvement is a key one. I would say that the majority of the films that really resonate with me seem to have a crucial balance and harmony of the two. It's a major reason why film and really all good art is so affecting. The constant interaction and overlapping of the two is usually what separates the superficial from the meaningful.

Coppola's The Conversation, one of my favorites, immediately came to mind as I was reading your post, and I think it's another good illustration of "twoness" at work. Not only does Harry Caul's environment constantly mirror and reinterpret his particular character, but because the film is told strictly from his point of view he's also providing the framework, however skewed, for the way we see external reality.

Thanks for the interesting post and keep up the good work.

April 17, 2008 10:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I dig the discussion so far but don't have time or spirit to reply to Dan this evening.

It occurred to me that if a filmmaker is running with an idea but, at the same time, tempers the idea with opposing forces, this creates a dimensionality to a work that can be not only pleasing, but active and invigorating and......I dunno, good for ya. A director creates a world, as we've mentioned two or more times at this point, but also exhibits his awareness that the world is watched, and creates a conversation along those lines.

This thing, this two-ness, it makes perfect sense when I think about it, but when I really, really think about it and try to dig in and fact-find, it gets bigger and bigger and harder to describe.


April 17, 2008 11:21 PM  
Anonymous Sky said...

Dan - that's interesting... it's probably a mystery whether Uchida even knew whether he was intending symbolism or not. I guess whether or not he was symbolic by habit would have a lot of play in how one interpreted that bit of sound design.

I dunno, I might have overreached during that discussion. I like some of my roommate's work, so when he steers away from my sensibility I can't help but try to put him back on course. I guess two-ness was expressed, to some degree, in his video, but I felt that one-ness was emphasized. Emphasis is probably more important than whether two-ness can be gleaned from something.

Jaime - I agree with that point, and I'm glad you suggested the "good for ya" part because I've tried to express why I've found this two-ness business integral to everyday life before on a certain forum you used to frequent and was basically laughed off. Aesthetics are the reason I find it difficult to meditate: I don't understand how trying to mentally and physically mediate your own distance from the outside world could be more rewarding than, say, having Howard Hawks do it for you.

April 18, 2008 12:56 AM  
Anonymous MovieMan0283 said...

What a fantastic discussion I stumbled upon here. I don't have much to add, just to say that it reminds me of the implicit themes in much 50's Cahiers writing, and the New Wave films that resulted.

Dan, have you written much on Godard? What's your take on him? He's one of my favorite filmmakers and though I've never really articulated it as such, I think it has a lot to do with the way in which he plays with two-ness. The essence of his film is non-narrative yet (at least pre-'68) still just engaged enough with narrative to send off tremendous sparks which fuel the viewing experience.

And I wish I could pull of 8-10 rep screenings a week (well, maybe just one a day). I pulled off 2-4 a year and a half ago and considered it an accomplishment -- now even that's out of reach. I try to make up with copious Netflix queues and the occasional visit to Kim's (which will be ending soon as I leave the city).

Keep up the good work.

April 19, 2008 4:50 PM  
Anonymous MovieMan0283 said...

Quick correction -- a better opposition to posit in Godard would be external vs. internal, rather than non-narrative vs. narrative.

April 19, 2008 4:51 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Evan, Jaime, Sky, MovieMan.... As you may have noticed, I’m trying to step carefully with this two-ness concept. Even though I’m the one who broadened the reach of the idea with that La France discussion, I’m not sure that Jaime isn’t right to hang on to the more concrete discussion of dramaturgy and internal vs. external views.

And, if we do go broad with two-ness as an evaluative tool, Sky is surely right that we would have to bring in the notion of emphasis. Because I daresay that it won’t be hard to find two-ness in some aspect of everything we look at. So the question will arise: is there an especially important aspect of this artwork at this moment? One so important that the presence of two-ness is a make-or-break criterion? Emphasis was a hidden concept in my discussion of Dickinson and K. Kurosawa, and I had to make that concept more explicit when Girish pressed me on whether I ever liked films that didn’t care about classical dramaturgy.

The reason the Uchida example interests me is that it suggests a gray zone where one person might perceive a concept and another might feel a vibration. Obviously people are mostly alike, and we can count on a lot of similarity in the way they will react – but maybe we have to allow for zones where people operate a little differently on basic functional levels. If so, then people with the same aesthetics might nonetheless have different reactions to the same artistic event.

For years I had problems with Godard, but now I admire him, at least the early, funny films. And I do think that those early films can be seen as pushing the boundaries of narrative, of trying to see how much can be omitted, how much artifice can be exposed, how much the filmmaking process can be acknowledged, while still achieving the effects that narrative is intended to achieve.

April 21, 2008 3:51 PM  

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